Ash Wednesday: Remember you will die

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Some day, this body I call my own will lose the life and breath that keeps it from falling into decay. My season of life will end as surely as every season does. I will become ashes and dust. I have an appointment with Death, minus the day, date, and time particulars. It may not happen tomorrow, next month, or even in the next twenty years. The cause of it remains unknown, but the certainty of it cannot be denied: I have an expiration date.

Will my impending return to ashes and dust lead me to appreciate every numbered day I have? Will fear of death goad me into fleeing  mortality’s reality  through cosmetic surgery and expensive drugs offering a return to youth? How will I number my days, and what do I want their sum to mean?

This Ash Wednesday, I ask myself: if my God given life is a blessing, is there also a blessing in my God given death?

Lord, my days are numbered. May they add up to something holy. Amen.

Laissez les bon temps rouler (Let the good times roll)

Bill Albritton kindly offered to write on a common expression. In honor of Mardi Gras, here it is…

Laissez les bons temps rouler

As Mardi Gras approaches, I think about this old Cajun French toast: Let the good times roll! A couple of key words here for me are let and roll. It doesn’t say that we have to make these good times happen—we let/allow them to happen. In other words, let’s not get in the way of them. All of our efforting, striving, manufacturing is of no avail and perhaps might even restrict these “good times”. It’s like telling someone You’re not in the mood? Well, get in the mood! Or maybe it’s like trying to be happy?
Did you ever try to stop rolling down a hill as a kid? If it’s a good hill, it’s pretty hard to stop yourself as I recall—and there were very few times I would want to do that, anyway. When you’re on a roll, you just enjoy it. Trying to roll is hard—rolling is easy.
Several books and a song have used Let Go and Let God in their titles. I’m taking this advice seriously this Lenten season—oh, but not too seriously.
[Bill Albritton offers his gifts of writing, teaching, singing, and praying to God, neighbor, church community, and world. I am grateful beyond words.]

Slippery Slope

It’s a slippery slope, my friend. In the literal sense, it’s a heads-up to step carefully on wintry roads, sidewalks, and ski trails. In a philosophical discussion, it’s a caution concerning the tendency to slide from one questionable act or assumption into another, gaining momentum all the way. In Lemony Snicket’s The Slippery Slope, book the tenth book in A Series of Unfortunate Events, it’s both.

A slippery slope turns tentative, tiny movements in a particular direction into a glide, a descent, and a velocity that cannot be controlled or stopped. It’s what makes navigating icy on-ramps dangerous and toboggan rides down snowy hills exhilarating. It’s momentum in a particular direction, and what comes of it – joy, pain, kindness, hurt – depends on the direction. Taking a few steps down the wrong path makes taking the next few easier until the ability to turn around is unlikely if not impossible. But the same may be said of taking those very same steps down the right path: baby steps in the right direction can turn into confident strides, then a glide into acts of peace and courage that are transformed into blessings for the world around and the soul within.

Falling in love or a descent into hell: it isn’t the slipperiness of the slope, it’s the direction that makes the determination. I take comfort in knowing that God offers a steadying hand when I need to climb my way out of a descent into darkness. I take courage in knowing that God will help me love beyond my own limits. I am filled with joy knowing the small love I offer will be transformed by God into a blessed forward momentum – steps to strides to glides, perhaps.

 [Library Slide in Winter, photo by Jared Fredrickson]

 

Get a Word in Edgewise

I’ve been in a few situations where I couldn’t get a word in, edgewise or straight on. When it happens, the same choice arises: make the effort to turn a monologue into a conversation or move on to a less forbidding dialogue partner. Whether to stay or go depends on the kind of monologue it is: one that only wants a passive and silent audience, or one that is sincerely seeking a conversation partner, but is having trouble making a connection. The first is a waste of time, the second is worth the effort to get that word in edgewise.

Sometimes, it isn’t a spoken word. Inked words on a page can be almost as one sided, especially when they are difficult to understand. Sometimes, the argument is too dense, an impenetrable hedge with no gate in sight. Sections of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time were like that for me – I understood all the words in the sentences, but couldn’t figure out what they meant strung together. It took me well over a month to get through the book, and a good couple of years before I understood it well enough to ask even the most basic questions about the ideas it contained. Why did I stick with this conversation when lack of understanding made it impossible to get a word in edgewise? I suspected there was something true and deep in Hawking’s printed monologue – something worth the attempt to change it into a conversation. Twenty years later, I felt the same about Sean Carroll’s The Particle at the End of the Universe.

I wonder how many people experience holy scripture of any kind – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. –  as such a torrent of words that no one can get a word in edgewise. Holy writ is meant to be a conversation: it’s the best attempt of people throughout history to offer those who come after them an entry, constructed of words and prayer, into God’s infinite, intimate, loving reality. So get your word in, straight on or edgewise. It’s the conversation of a lifetime, and God eagerly listens for the word we offer.

Easy as Pie…A Piece of Cake…

The Phrase Finder‘s Gary Martin dates (as) easy as pie to the 1800’s, American in origin [www.phrases.org.uk). The easy part isn’t in the making of the pie, but in the ease with which it is enjoyed. He notes that cake is also related to pleasant, easy things – perhaps a commentary on how much dessert is enjoyed?

Being a baker myself, I am usually aware of the effort it took to produce what I eat – I’ve made countless cakes and I’ve witnessed my husband make dozens of pies over the past few years. Restaurant work paid my bills, so I don’t usually take entrees for granted much, either. But these sayings aren’t meant to be taken literally – they wouldn’t be common expressions if they were limited to that. So, I can’t help thinking that most things that are a piece of cake or as easy as pie aren’t worth a whole lot unless someone else invested the time and effort that make them valuable. I may never know who made things go so smoothly for me as to be as easy as pie, but I’m sure I owe him or her a long overdue thank you.

Don’t Blink

Don’t Blink – you just might miss it.

I used to say this about New Durham, the town I called home for almost a decade. It’s that blinking yellow light on Route 11, a couple of miles before you get to the Alton traffic circle, just below the southern edge of Winnepesaukee. Lots of trees, a lake, scattered ponds, and a brown raised ranch five miles from town center that kept me and my family warm and dry. A beach on Chalk pond and a canoe to paddle every inch of it, snow and ice for sledding and skating, and stars scattered through the deep blue sky every season of the year were waiting outside the door. Inside, the people I loved and laughed with. Back then, I didn’t know how fast those days and years would pass into other days, years, and places.

I have loved every place I’ve lived, and I’ve loved every stage of life. Each brought gifts and heartache – the unique contour and blessing of my life’s particulars. I wouldn’t go back, trading what is and will be for what was, but time’s passing has changed the meaning of don’t blink since that yellow light marked my home town and my teen years. Now it means something like this:

My life is one among billions, a small flicker lasting for such a short time. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a holy, crazy, blessed one-of-a-kind gift. It’s the same for every single life – yours, mine, and everyone else’s. If I’m too busy fussing about what isn’t perfect, I will miss it just as surely as a blink of an eye at the wrong time sends me right past that yellow light without a clue that it marks a place called home.

God, give me eyes to see this fragile, broken, beloved life that is your gift to me. May I see everyone and everything else as you do: beloved. Amen.

Speak of the Devil

Speak (talk) of the Devil and he will appear.  

According to The Phrase Finder, the saying’s been around for hundreds of years in its longer form. The last four words have been dropped sometime between then and now, turning what might have been a cautionary saying bordering on superstition to an innocuous way to note when someone who is being talked of walks in.

I think there are very few adults who believe that speaking someone’s name will cause them to appear, even if repeated three times in Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice fashion. Still, I think there are very few adults who haven’t had the person they were talking about show up as if summoned or the person they’ve been meaning to call suddenly calling them. It’s serendipity if it’s a welcome appearance, like a bad penny if it isn’t.

There’s an undeniable power to words. Saying something aloud – a name, a fear, a joy – makes it real in a way that it wasn’t before it moved from thought to speech. It’s why saying the words I love yougood-byecome in!, and go away seems almost impossible at times. The words can’t be taken back, and the vulnerability they express cannot be denied or overlooked. Spoken words reveal us when they are true.

In its shorter/lighter or longer/darker form, it’s good to remember that the one we speak of will not magically or miraculously be summoned by our words; at the same time, speaking of and to another makes who we are and who they are more tangible, more real. It may not be magical, but I doubt it’s any less miraculous.

[The Phrase Finder is a wonderful resource created by Gary Martin. Visit it at www.phrases.org.uk.]

Rest in Peace/ It is what it is

It seems an odd placement, a post about death followed by a post about the mutability of reality. Death is immutable – there’s no getting around it, no sliding on past it, no wishing it to be undone. This is true of so many things in our lives because we cannot control the universe, the orbit of our tiny planet, the family we are born into, or the time and place of our births. These things are what they are. But how we respond to them is well within our control. We can choose whether these unchanging realities prompt us to expand our minds, hearts, and spirits – or whether they prompt us to contract them. Our choice in this changes our lives in profound ways.

Contraction: The thought of dying causes us to shrink back from life, hoard our minutes, days, and hours like misers do their coins. We try not to get too close to anyone, knowing that some day death will part them from us. We put every effort into avoiding our own aging. Our lives, and the life of the world are the lesser for such a choice.

Blizzard Beauty, 2017

Expansion: The thought of dying causes us to embrace life, spending our minutes, days, and hours on this precious earth with appreciation, generosity, and joy. We risk getting close to others because some day death will part them from us. We accept aging with all its gifts and challenges because it has things to offer us that a life of perpetual adolescence cannot. Our lives, and the life of the world, are the richer for such a choice.

Whatever choice we make, however many times we choose one or the other, we are always loved by God. It’s more a matter of whether our living days reflect that love – a warm heart, a curious mind, a trusting spirit.

Perhaps this time and place is what it is in many ways because we made such a choice.

Lord, help me choose the life you have given me this day. Guide my steps, lend compassion to my thoughts and actions, hold my hand when I’m afraid. Amen.

It Is What It Is

It is what it is.

I’ve heard it used in two almost opposing ways.

As a starting point: Begin with how things are and grow from this reality a new and better one.

As the last word: Don’t bother to put in any effort because what is cannot be changed (and I’m not responsible for trying).

The first doesn’t deny reality; it confirms the way things are and affirms that it can be changed for the better. It’s a great truth.

The second doesn’t deny reality, either: it denies that it can be otherwise. In denying the mutable nature of all things, it’s one of the biggest falsehoods ever spoken.

Requiescat in pace/Rest in Peace/R.I.P

I’ve seen these words- Latin, English, abbreviated – on grave markers, obituaries, cards handed out at funerals, and on T-shirts. Rest in Peace. What does it mean to ask that a loved one rest in peace?

Perhaps it’s similar to my memory of running into the open arms of my mother when I was a three year old. Maybe it’s the feeling of total acceptance and joy when my father tossed me into the air and spun me around. Either way, the return was a delight to parent and child alike. If such things happen here, what awaits at the return to God?

Falling into the embrace of God is my best shot at describing death; everyone who has ever felt lost, grief-stricken, bereft, or broken returns to the arms of the one who loves completely. When I say rest in peace, I’m not praying for an eternal night’s sleep: I’m giving back to God loved ones and strangers alike, letting go of the limited love and incomplete understanding I had for them as they let go of this mortal life.

Rest from your troubles. Let go of your limits. These prayers I offer when I say rest in peace.

Priscilla, Rest in Peace.

Moving into God’s presence through words